Can coin-op videogames make a comeback? Many industry members have their doubts. Skeptics, including many operators, have dismissed the prospect of a return to dominance by video amusement as a major revenue generator, at least in traditional venues. But it's possible that today's dismissal of videogames is as mistaken as the industry's initial view, back in 1980, that saw the category as just a flash in the pan.
However, some intriguing developments are stirring in coin-op's videogame segment. To begin with, leading companies have invested in developing a new generation of games for 2009, based on proven trends and reliable performers.
And it's not just new games and technology that signal a possible renaissance. There are also promising new startup manufacturers, marketing channels, distribution channels and – believe it or not – a surprising level of activism and demand from players.
If these trends continue, they could upset the industry's negative expectations and once again put videogames in the forefront of the amusements scene.
Existing manufacturers continue to believe that the sector has a viable future. But they also know there is a tough hill to climb. For example, Raw Thrills chief executive Eugene Jarvis told VENDING TIMES last year that operators' trust must be regained by delivering affordable products that demonstrate longevity and strong ROI.
IN THE DRIVER'S SEAT
The evergreen genre in the market has been the driving game. Accordingly, that is where the top manufacturers have directed the lion's share of their development resources. Sega Amusement, the largest among the Japanese amusement factories, has invested much into driving games. Four of its titles appear to be real contenders.
One of the largest cabinets is Hummer, a two-seater special-attraction motion simulator. Machines can be linked locally to create multiplayer off-road challenges, with control of each Humvee swapping between the two drivers based on skill.
Continuing the off-road theme, the company has reprised the success of its rally racing game with Sega Rally 3, the latest incarnation in the popular franchise. Following the trend for urban street racing, the company presented R-Tuned Ultimate Street Racing, with custom street-machine, power-sliding action set in nighttime cityscapes. The racing genre also has moved to two wheels with the launch of Sega's new Harley Davidson: King Of The Road. It features highly recognizable street bikes, and drivers can compete on various city circuits.
Another Japanese factory with a selection of racing titles is Namco Bandai Games, with its own motorcycle riding game, NIRIN, and the latest update of the street-racing custom-car franchise, Maximum Tune 3DX. American manufacturer Global VR offers oval circuit car racing with Nascar Racing, and also has launched the latest version of its popular custom street racer, Need for Speed: Carbon.
Raw Thrills, which has set the bar for many popular racing titles, this year goes way off the roadway with the launch of a high-speed water adventure. H2Overdrive features power speedboats and a catchy name. And the company hopes it will generate the same enthusiasm achieved by such classic boat-racing titles as Midway's Hydro Thunder.
Raw Thrills continues its popular street racer series of Fast and the Furious games. The latest entries are now available as conversion kits to update older driving-game cabinets. For the children's market, the gamemaker's Nicktoon Nitro provides a simple and fun play.
The concept of high-speed water racing is not unique to American developers this year. A game from Taiwan-based InJoy Motion, called Power Boat, follows in the footsteps of the popular iMON motion tank game. This boat-racing experience will be released in four motion-cabinet versions, designed as cost-effective solutions for a wide range of venues.
Gun games are another mainstay videogame genre. This action style remains highly popular with many audiences. The master of the "intense amusement blaster" for the coin-op market has been Namco Bandai. Its latest foray into the genre, Razing Storm, offers machine-gun action in a two-player package, with prominent audio and video that builds on the phenomenal success of the Time Crisis series.
Sega also provides intense shooting action with Rambo, bringing the movie action hero to amusements in a realistic representation of sequences from the popular 1980s films. For a more sports-oriented option, Sega Clay Challenge is available as a kit to update older cabinets.
The esteem of "sport shooting" games in bars and taverns is well known. Raw Thrills' Big Buck Hunter series continues with the latest, Big Buck Safari, now supported by the company's CoinUp network tournament infrastructure that allows operators to organize local and national tournaments.
RETURN OF THE FIGHTER
When coin-op videogames enjoyed a comeback in 1985, they were not led by drivers or shooters, but by a then-new martial arts genre. This fighting style led the next coin-op video bounce-back in the 1990s with Capcom's Street Fighter Champion Edition. While combat games remain popular in the home, they have lost favor in arcades in recent years.
They are now experiencing an unexpected return to popularity, thanks to key developments in Asia. The launch of titles such as Namco's Tekken 6 and Capcom's Street Fighter IV created lots of excitement in Japanese arcades. The momentous popularity of these titles literally spanned the global game scene, reenergizing interest in amusement video among home players.
When U.S. players heard about these hit titles, they wanted them in American arcades, too. What could be better than a proven hit with proven demand from players? But the American trade looked at the prices and reacted with severe sticker shock. The depressed coin-op market was not going to pay more than $14,000 for just a fighting game. Plans to sell in the States were abandoned.
That decision might have been wrong.
Interest in these games became so intense among players that gray-market importers started a lucrative trade bringing these titles into the U.S. and recalling the days of parallel imports.
This reemerging practice escaped the notice of the "official" industry because the games did not wind up in traditional locations. Rather than being installed in venues dependent on a casual impulse audience, the imported fighting games went to hardcore fan venues and new machine operators, such as comic book storefronts and home videogame retail shops. They generated extraordinary ROI, with machines paying for themselves in three months at the height.
Emboldened by this new subculture, new businesses have emerged – companies that are willing to import fighting games in greater quantity. One of them is Aksys Games, which has announced plans to place the popular Japanese Arc System Works title BlazeBlue into the hands of American operators. It's a bold move, especially because it means circumventing traditional U.S. distributors.
Another fighting-game importer is Andamiro USA, which has promised to bring Arcana Heart 2 to the market. These and other importers have moved against blinkered opposition to respond and adapt to new opportunities of a changed market.
A new joystick fighting game is being launched by Global VR. Justice League: Heroes United is based on the DC Comics universe of superheros and villains – a rare departure from conventional fighting games. Also, some new startup amusement developers are seriously looking at creating their own fighting-game titles. Galloping Ghost Productions has been developing a game called Dark Presence that harks back to the style of play that made hits out of Midway's Mortal Kombat and Killer Instinct.
THE NEXT BOY BAND?
These are signs of a powerful future for video amusement – and more signs are appearing. At the top of the list is the launch of Konami Digital Games' and Activision's Guitar Hero Arcade. Based on the consumer game phenomenon (with 24 million copies sold), this guitar-playing challenge is creating great excitement in the amusement scene. Redeveloped as an arcade title by Raw Thrills for Konami, the game is expected to be a smash hit.
More music-based Bemani titles are proposed by Konami with an amazingly revolutionary music-and-button game called UBEAT in the wings, while the company's Dance Dance Revolution X marks the 10th anniversary of that franchise. And Andamiro USA has launched a competing game, Pump it Up!: NX Absolute, to do battle for the hearts and minds of the large dancing-stage audience.
Guitar Hero Arcade symbolizes one part of video's future because of its music theme, but also because of its capacity for tournament play. When a popular game connects players across the country, and allows them to compete for high-score championships in local and national competitions, the combination has proven to be a strong generator of revenue and repeat customers. Raw Thrills' CoinUp network infrastructure has been developed to support a tournament-enabled version of GHA, which has already been done for the Big Buck Hunter Pro series.
Incredible Technologies put videogame tournaments on the map with its hugely successful Golden Tee series. The franchise is now 20 years old and enjoying its 17th iteration with Golden Tee LIVE. New technology and an intensive marketing campaign have built the brand and kept it prominent and successful. Golden Tee, along with the popular hunting-themed shooters of recent years, demonstrates that uprights can be profitable in the bar and tavern market.
IT's Silver Strike Bowling and Target Toss: Pro build on the casual competitive game initiative. And the latest addition to the company's trackball-game lineup, Power Putt, offers a simple and fun putting challenge for all audiences.
IT now bundles its new games in a pedestal cabinet system that allows operators to source displays on their own, creates a fresh look for locations and liberates the factory from producing games with bulky, built-in CRTs. The waist-high cabinet system houses the videogame computer, controllers and payment peripherals. It connects to most 16:9 HDTVs.
Operators with fond memories of the Pac-Man era often wish that the industry could recreate the days when simple games appealed to all kinds of players, not just testosterone-driven young males. An attempt to fill that bill is coming from SnowRunner Productions, a new startup amusement developer. Supported by a fan base and guerrilla marketing, the company has developed a unique retro-style videogame that pays homage to 8-bit playability and styling. Called Get Outta My Face!, the game has already sparked an underground following based on initial tests and a free online demonstrator – a new tactic for launching coin-op games.
There is one emerging aspect of the videogame revolution that embraces the very element that has eroded the playing audience of traditional amusement operations. The public-space market, personified by the cyber cafe and Internet lounge, has achieved a considerable following among those wanting to play favorite PC and console network games. This so-called "pay-for-use" market has now adopted a viable standalone package for the coin-op industry.
The most vigorous of these new developments is from Quasimoto and American Reload. It's called the Game Gate VU, and it offers a pay-to-use machine that features the latest XBox 360 console and PC game content, all supported by a network infrastructure. The most telling part of this new development is the use of a subscription model, with the operator paying for an activation code to run the machine, exposing the manufacturer and content providers to the revenue generated.
Far from being a barren wasteland, the videogame amusement scene is poised to deliver a high level of diversity in 2009. The question is: Will these new machines continue to depend on a 75-year-old distribution model? Or will a new type of game be marketed online and sold direct by the manufacturer? And if sold directly, will they be sold to operators or to locations?
Will the 125-year-old business model of revenue sharing remain in place? Or will videogames go the way of the jukebox, with content delivered online and paid through a subscriptions model?
The answers to these questions may reshape not only the videogame sector, but also the entire amusements industry.
KEVIN WILLIAMS is founder and director of the out-of-home leisure entertainment consultancy KWP Ltd. His extensive experience in global video amusements and high-tech attractions includes top management and design posts with a focus on new technology development and applications. He is a well-known speaker on the industry lecture circuit and has authored numerous articles. Williams is also editor and publisher of The Stinger Report, a leading industry e-newsletter and Web-based information service. Go to thestingerreport.com to sign up for a free subscription.